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Is there a face mask shortage in Australia?


Face mask shortage headline graphic

Will there be a stock shortage? When will more masks arrive? Why are prices increasing? Here's what suppliers are saying.

Demand for face masks has surged rapidly in Australia, especially since the introduction of rules making them mandatory in parts of Victoria and encouraged in many other states to help combat the spread of coronavirus. In particular, interest in cloth face masks and reusable face masks has increased dramatically.

The sudden leap in demand has left many retailers without stock, echoing issues seen earlier this year with toilet paper and tinned food. But how long will this last?

To find out, Finder talked to four Australian-owned face mask suppliers to get their read on the current situation.

How much stock does Australia have?

Nick Turon, CEO of Newcastle-based mask supplier Breathe Easy Australia, says that while he's aware of suppliers talking about potential shortages, he sees no evidence it's true. "Whilst some suppliers are concerned with a mask shortage, we're not seeing any indication of this from an international supply front," he said. Breathe Easy is prioritising deliveries to Melbourne.

Other suppliers do see potential issues ahead. Asked if Australians should be worried, CEO of Clinical Supplies John Stefanidis says: "Probably not." But he adds that suppliers will need to make some changes to their processes to maintain supply.

New stock arrives at Clinical Supplies' office.

New stock arrives at Clinical Supplies' office. Image: Supplied

"Ultimately it will come down to risk management. Are importers and distributors willing to commit to [buying] stock that's unaccounted for? If we have another aggressive wave of COVID-19, well, we can't be waiting on two to three-week turnaround times from China, India, Vietnam or Thailand."

At Victorian supplier Australian Mask Specialist (AMS), director Benjamin Aizik is also focusing on locals. The company deals mostly in bulk buys for families through to big businesses. Aizik believes there is nothing that Australians need to worry about, other than watching out for low-grade stock from fly-by-night suppliers.

"Due to the government's influx of masks there will not be a shortage," Aizik said. "As such, we believe that Australians do not need to worry as there will be enough stock to meet the demand. With so many fake/copy masks around, though, shopping at known businesses who provide premium TGA/FDA approved masks is the safest option for Australians."

What if you're seeking a more stylish mask? Hailing from Sydney's Blue Mountains, Clear Collective sells designer masks in a variety of styles. Customer support lead, Harper Pieres, told Finder that Clear Collective is at no risk of running out of stock anytime soon.

"We don't feel there is any need to worry about mask shortages," Pieres said. "Our team has the next three months of masks ready for anyone who needs one. We've ramped up to help avoid the toilet paper scenario."

How is face mask stock looking in the future?

All four suppliers also downplayed any concerns over longer-term shortages. "We see our stock quantity as extremely sustainable in both the short and long-term," AMS's Aizik said. Breathe Easy's Turon took a similar view: "Stock levels are fine both in the short and long-term."

Clinical Supplies' Stefandis suggests that suppliers are already planning ahead. "Based on our current supply line, each party is taking on the right level of risk," he said.

Even Clear Collective, which focuses on Australian-made masks, isn't worried about running low. "We have plenty of masks available for adults and kids, with many more on the way," Pieres said. "We have made enough masks to cover the east coast of Australia and ramped up our Sydney manufacturing team. We have new mask styles arriving several times a week."

Is the demand for face masks really that high?

Social media often amplifies the perception of shortages. That said, the suppliers that Finder talked to have seen a major leap in demand.

At Clinical Supplies, Stefandis has seen a huge boom in customers through mid-July. He said there was a "significant change in demand" and that "we've had about a 4000% increase in revenue this week".

"Mask demand has definitely seen a major increase," AMS's Aizik said, citing similar figures. "The mandatory masks in Victoria saw a panic much like at the beginning of the pandemic. This resulted in an approximate 400% increase in demand for face masks."

Why have face mask prices increased?

There's little doubt that if you bought a face mask this time last year, it would likely have cost you less than right now. A Finder analysis of reusable masks suggests that the average price is around $23, but some options cost far more. Some of that might be opportunism, but some increases may be unavoidable.

Suppliers point to increasing business expenses as one factor. "Flying in stock so we can fulfil orders quickly is more expensive," Breathe Easy's Turon said. "We have seen a significant increase in freight [costs]."

Staff costs have also risen. "We have packing teams [working] both day and night to fulfil our customer orders as fast as possible," Clear Collective's Harper Pieres said.

"We buy our stock outright from importers and this means we take on more risk," Clinical Supplies' Stefandis said. "But it also means we can deliver masks as fast as one-day or even same-day delivery for special orders."

Face mask prices could get better

But hopefully, any price increases will be short-lived across all suppliers. For example, AMS's Aizik spoke of how his company has worked hard to build a relationship with its manufacturers that can help cut costs.

"As we have already gone through the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Australia, we were able to compare the demand and put in the necessary steps to have the appropriate masks to meet the new demand," he said. "We've created an extremely good relationship with our supplier, and we are always trying to find ways to reduce our prices."

There will be opportunities for businesses to think about new ways to bundle and package their products. Clear Collective has started taking that approach, with discounts on family bundles. Finder's analysis showed that many suppliers are offering discounts for larger orders.

Are Aussies keen to buy Australian-made face masks?

While some masks are made in Australia, suppliers say that local production capabilities aren't enough to meet the demand. "I think people would prefer to buy local, but I'm not sure that the production capacity exists to meet demand in Australia," Breathe Easy's Turon said.

"I don't think Australians have expectations around local manufacturing," said Clinical Supplies' Stefandis. "The key is selling a product that is TGA registered. [If anything], our customers are looking for masks that aren't Chinese made, rather than looking for products that are specifically made in Australia."

For some buyers, however, Australian-made remains key. "We have a very special bond with many of our customers that have been with us since day one and love supporting Australian made products," Pieres said. "It's a great time to support Australian businesses."

Want more help with masks? Check out our overview of face masks, what doctors recommend when using them, the rules that apply in Australia and our regularly-updated guide on where to buy reusable masks.

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